Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton backs Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from French Open

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton sent a message of support on Twitter to Naomi Osaka after the Japanese tennis player withdrew from the French Open this week

Lewis Hamilton says the backlash tennis star Naomi Osaka has received following her withdrawal from the French Open is "ridiculous".

He added that the response from the tennis authorities to Osaka was "not cool".

And Hamilton said most athletes were "not prepared" for success and that the pressures of fame "weigh heavily on you".

"It can be daunting still standing behind a camera," he said.

"It is not the easiest, particularly if you are an introvert and you do struggle to be under those pressures."

Hamilton was talking before this weekend's Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the end of a week in which the sporting headlines have been dominated by Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open.

The Japanese world number two initially refused to do media commitments at the tournament, to "protect her mental health".

She then pulled out of the tournament on Monday, a day after the organisers of the four Grand Slam tournaments threatened to expel her for not talking to the media.

The incident has opened up a debate about the relationship between sports stars and the media, especially in the context of mental health.

Seven-time champion Hamilton said: "She is an incredible athlete and human being and her activism has been just so impactful. But at such a young age, there is so much weight on her shoulders it is inevitable.

"The fact is, when you are young, you are thrown into the limelight and the spotlight, and it weighs heavily on you. Most of us are not prepared.

"When I came into F1, the team had PR. I was never prepared for being thrown in front of a camera. I was never guided as to what to look out for and helped to navigate through that, so I sort of learned through mistakes.

"But when I was young, I was thrown into the pit and wasn't given any guidance or support."

Hamilton said Osaka had been "incredibly brave" to take her stance and called on the tennis authorities to reconsider their response.

"It is now asking those in power and putting them in question and making them have to think about how they react, because the way they reacted was not good - with the fine," he said.

"Someone talking about their personal mental health and then being fined for it - that was not cool.

"They could have definitely handled it better, and I hope they will take a deep dive into it and find a way to navigate it better in the future. As athletes, we are pushing ourselves to the limit, we are on the edge and we are only human beings."

Expectations for the race

Hamilton lost the championship lead to Red Bull's Max Verstappen at the last race in Monaco, when the Dutchman won and the Mercedes driver could manage only seventh place.

Both men played down the significance of Verstappen's four-point lead after just five races of the season.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen is leading the drivers' championship for the first time in his career

Although Mercedes struggled for competitiveness in Monaco, Verstappen said he believed their car was still the quickest on most tracks.

"I do believe they are still on normal tracks ahead of us," Verstappen said. "But for us so far this season we have had a great start compared to other seasons and we just need to keep it up, keep improving, keep bringing new bits to the car all the time to try to improve it and then we have a very good shot at it.

"So far, to be leading the championship is very positive. It is great of course to be first, but it is more important where you end up after the [final] race in Abu Dhabi."

Flexi-wing controversy rumbles on

Mercedes are unhappy that a rule intended to restrict the use of flexible rear wings - which Red Bull are one of the teams to use - is not being brought into force until after this weekend's race in Baku.

They believe that the devices, which reduce drag by tilting backwards above a certain speed on the straight, will be a significant advantage on the pit straight in Baku, which is the longest flat-out stretch on the F1 calendar.

Max Verstappen
Verstappen has either finished first or second at each of the five races in 2021

Hamilton, who was the first to draw public attention to what he called the "bendy" wing on the Red Bull, said he did not want to be drawn further into the controversy.

"Regardless of what I think, it doesn't make a difference so I am not looking to get headlines with it," he said.

"I heard about it, I spoke about it, but the fact is they passed the tests that are given for this weekend so we proceed in the way things are.

"Of course it is an advantage on the straights. It can give good time, but we will just try to be the best we can with what we have and hopefully in the future will be better in terms of how they measure those sorts of things."

Mercedes say their rear wing is "rigid", although Red Bull have drawn attention to what they say is a flexible front wing on the world champions' car.

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